Unsupervised Childhood

“I stay home with my kids, but sometimes I still feel guilty for not spending enough time with them,” confessed one of my good friends.

I could fully relate with her. When I first quit my job to stay home with my baby, I too had thought that it was my new job to be always with my child, to fully engage her and to always be in tune with her needs. And of course, I wanted to excel in my new career, as all moms do.

It took me a while to realize that my baby had outgrown her newborn phase and as she grew, my constant presence and supervision were no longer as required. In fact, it would not do her good if I kept hovering over her and deprived her of age-appropriate autonomy.

Big Nona climbs the tree.

I remember my own parents were always busy at the shop, as all the adults that I knew in my childhood were. Instead of expecting our parents to keep us entertained, we would find the neighborhood kids to play with. It was an everyday thing for us to run around the alley or to play at one another’s house.

“Auntie, is so and so at home?” The parents usually didn’t bother with what the neighborhood kids did. We’d play upstairs, or outside, unsupervised. I guess, it was just the way things were in the olden days. The particularly good old days with fond memories for me.

I was definitely not the kid with the best behavior in town. Besides getting into fights, I did many funny things I am sure my parents wouldn’t be proud of. I remember leading a few neighborhood kids to knock hard at a neighbor’s door before running away to hide. We would giggle among ourselves as we observed the auntie coming out cursing and swearing. Yeah, I don’t think I will ever let my own kids do the same (who’s the sane parent that would?).

The Nonas putting on lipstick without Mommy knowing.

On other occasions I was messing with my uncle’s pet animals. My cousins and I used to stay at our late grandma’s place after school until my dad fetched us home in the evening, so we had plenty of free time in between. My uncle kept some caged birds in my late grandma’s house. These cages were hanging down from the ceiling. Once, we (okay, I was the one suggesting it) poked at the bottom of those cages because we wanted the birds to flap their wings instead of just perching still in there. They did and it was fun, until I poked too hard and one of the cages dropped on me. Not only the cage but the whole bird’s droppings too! Thank God they were dry! The floor was an entire mess but I was glad the bird didn’t escape or that would have been the death of me. We managed to put everything back up and had the mess cleaned up without getting caught.

I was not always that lucky though. Besides birds, my uncle had pet fishes too. They were kept in two separated aquariums, one at the second floor and the other at the third floor. The smart me assumed that nobody would ever know if I swapped those fishes, they all looked the same to me anyway. So I went ahead and netted out some fishes from one aquarium, went up the stairs and put them into the other, and vice versa. When my uncle came back that evening, I watched as he went up and heard my name yelled out shortly afterwards. How could he have known? Not so smart of me, apparently.

Those were probably some of the less than desirable deeds resulting from my boredom. Other times we would be scouring the ditches for interesting finds, or jumping over wide ‘longkangs’ to see who could or could not make it – my brother once failed and fell; spending pocket money on doughnuts and young coconut water while watching some snake-handler putting up a show was also one of our favorite pastimes.

Doing kungfu while singing Wong Fei Hung’s song.

Despite the many hours of unsupervised childhood, I didn’t grow up as a delinquent, I don’t abuse animals, and at least am a decent citizen who pays her tax; the same can be said of the rest of our peers. My own parents, especially my dad, had very strict and high standard for their children’s behavior, as most Chinese typically were. So I think it kind of balanced out the whole thing. I couldn’t imagine, if he had been supervising me 24/7, we would probably have driven each other mad.

Now that we are in the modern age of parenting, leaving children unsupervised even for a short time is seen as a risky and dangerous idea. In fact, in some countries it’s considered as case of abuse where the parents may be sent to jail and the child(ren) to foster care under the charge of parental neglect. We are told that it’s in our full responsibility, or that we are totally in charge of what our children will become in their adulthood. And that’s just a hairline away from assuming that parents can fully control how their children will grow up to be. This in turn, has become an immensely heavy burden on the parents’ shoulders. We even have the term “helicopter parenting” coined. Can this play a part in making our modern parenting so stressful for both parents and children?

Time has indeed changed, but perhaps it would make parenthood more enjoyable for me and childhood more memorable for my children if I could more often just look away and say nothing and let the kids be kids as they do what children do, as if unsupervised.

Little Nonas eating dirt. Just kidding! :p

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